As my colleague considered several months ago, organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) have been fighting for decades to counter the prejudices many have against obese individuals. As part of its efforts, NAAFA is working to establish federal and state laws making obesity a protected class. To date, however, these efforts have only resulted in one state (Michigan) and a handful of cities passing laws making weight-based discrimination illegal.
While efforts to make obesity a protected class have not been especially successful, there has, however, been more movement towards the greater recognition of obesity as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). My colleague previously noted that a federal district court in Louisiana had found that an employee who weighed 527 pounds at the time of her termination was “an individual with a disability” as defined under the ADA.
Similarly, last month, a notable settlement was approved by a federal judge in Texas in a disability discrimination lawsuit. In that case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued—on behalf of the employee—the employee’s former employer (a military vehicle manufacturing company) for alleged violations of the ADA for terminating the employee due to his weight. The case involved some stark facts and offers good advice for other employers.
The employee involved in the case had been employed as a materials handler at the manufacturing plant, earning $21 per hour. During that time, the employee weighed as much as 680 pounds. Allegedly, the employee was unexpectedly called into HR one day and told that the company had reached the conclusion that he could no longer perform his job duties because of his weight, and accordingly, he was terminated.
The EEOC alleged that the employee could, in fact, perform all the essential functions of his job. Moreover, EEOC lawyers claimed that the company failed to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether there were any reasonable accommodations that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his position. Finally, the EEOC alleged that the employee was replaced by someone who was not morbidly obese, suggesting the employer’s preference for non-obese (and allegedly non-disabled) employees.
The settlement awarded the terminated employee $55,000 and six months of employment services. As part of the settlement, the company denied violating the ADA or committing any wrongdoing in its termination decision.
What does this case and settlement mean for your company? Hopefully, you have concluded that you cannot discriminate against obese employees. Employment decisions cannot be made based upon an employee’s weight alone.
If an obese employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job, you may then have a legitimate basis for terminating the employee (assuming you properly engage in the interactive process for reasonable accommodation, if requested, and assuming that process does not identify any reasonable accommodation that enables the employee to perform the essential job functions). Such a decision, however, must be based upon the employee’s capability—not based upon his or her obesity. Making a decision to terminate an employee (or not hire an applicant) just because he or she is very large will likely get you into trouble.